From subversive to mainstream: Looking back on 18 years with Linux

It's funny to look back on my personal history with Linux and remember how subversive and alternative it once was. These days, it's just another operating system. That original subversive spark is gone.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

OK kids, dig out your 8-track tape decks, switch on your 40-channel CB radios, rack-off your sidepipes, and sling your too-long bangs off your face with a flip of your head, we're going back in time. OK, maybe we won't go back quite that far but we're going back a full 18 years on this little ride. I'm taking you on a long journey through the many bumps and rattles I've had over the years with my love affair with Linux. What a long, strange trip it's been. And now that Linux has "arrived," I'm a little bummed out nowadays because it was fun to be part of something that made people so angry and irritated.

Linux. From its original concept way back in 1991, to its near world domination in 2013, Linux has travelled far as an operating system and as a symbol of freedom.

You can now find Linux on every type of hardware from mainframes to mid-range servers to desktops to tablets to cell phones and down to miniature computing devices such as the Arduino. There's really no limit to what Linux can do or has done for technology.

Its positive impact on computing cannot be denied.

But its positive attributes were ignored by mainstream companies for many years no matter how loudly we converts sang its praises and weathered its criticisms.

I heard, and ignored, every possible criticism and threat launched at me over my obsession with Linux. I started the local Linux User's Group in spite of opposition from the local UNIX Special Interest Group (SIG), whose leader was less than thrilled that I would have the audacity to start such a group, when clearly Linux fans should be part of his group. No thanks. I didn't buy it then and I still don't.

Linux is different.

In the beginning, it was a reactive alternative to DOS, Windows, and all the commercial UNIX flavors—more of a, "Byte me, losers, I use Linux and there's nothing you can do about it" kind of thing. Its use was a reaction to the cookie-cutter, dronism of the day. I liked it at first because it made people mad and was subversive but I also liked it because it was cool.

Once I stopped my experimentation and rogue installations, including dual booting my corporate desktop system, I began shell scripting and creating automated processes. I also actually programmed my own Internet daemon and created my own distribution that began my technology writing career: Linux as a Windows Terminal Server Client (Sys Admin Magazine, November 2002).

The opposition began to subside once I saw increased corporate uptake for server farms, web services, hosting, and the virtualization explosion. Of course, no one remembered giving me excrement about how my work with Linux was pointless. Many of the original naysayers were now converts or, if you can believe it, experts who were into Linux from the early days. Yeah, right.

It doesn't matter now because we got what we wanted: mass Linux adoption. We did want that didn't we?

Somehow, though, the taste of victory was bittersweet, as I suppose it always is. I mean, we did want mass adoption and now that we have it, Linux, for me, has lost a bit of its original luster. But frankly, all operating systems have lost their luster. They don't hold the same fun that they once did nor do they hold my attention like they did back then. I seem to be growing weary of the next version and newest release of this or that distribution. It's a strange feeling because there was a time when I installed every new version of SUSE, Red Hat, Ubuntu, and Debian that hit the FTP servers.

No one argues anymore when you say that you're going to install a Linux system. No one threatens your job or your life if you dare put that "niche" operating system on the network. It's what we worked for—fought for—and got.

My undocumented, unapproved, and unwelcomed installations were not for naught. They meant something. They were good. My campaigning and outright soliciting for Linux had value. My initial cross-platform solution and all of my subsequent writings, including those for Linux Magazine, Linux Pro Magazine, ServerWatch, and many others, have great value. It's all part of history. My history. Linux history.

It's been years since I've heard the pretentious ring of, "Why don't you just do that on Windows?" It's been years since I've had to justify my right to use Linux. And it's even been a few years since the last time I had to correct someone's mispronunciation of Linux.

If you've gotten the feeling that I'm the type of person who must react against something for his motivation, you're correct. I need something to push against, something to argue about, and a cause to fight for. Linux was that last stand. I defended it against the Romulans and Philistines who came from every direction to oppose its use.

Now our blades have been beaten into blade enclosures. 

I've given up on the idea that Linux will ever make any inroads into the desktop OS market. I'm actually OK with that. As a server operating system, as a phone operating system, as a tablet operating system, and as a personal legacy, I have accomplished—along with thousands of others—what I set out to achieve all those years ago: Linux in the mainstream.

I have to thank Linus Torvalds for years of tormented joy. His "hobby" ended up being a life's work for myself and so many others. Eighteen years ago, I was just discovering the wonderous world of Linux and had little idea that it would bring me as far as it has.

I still love Linux. I still work with it every day. It is still very much a passion and a pursuit. But I no longer have to convince anyone of its features, stability, customizability, or flexibility as an operating system. I no longer have to offer it apologetically in tech circles nor do I have to wince just after saying Linux out loud around a group of Windows system administrators.

I can freely explore cross platform solutions and interoperability all I want, for as long as I wish, knowing that I will have a large, interested audience. It feels good, in a way, to be able to wear a Linux T-shirt without the feeling that I need to also wear those glasses that allow you to see who's behind you.

It's odd how the tides have changed. Once upon a time, when I wrote about Linux as an alternative, the comments were as rancid as they are now when I laud Windows or a Microsoft technology.

Linux is mainstream now and I have to get used to that. Perhaps Windows is the new Linux and I can embark on the pursuit of chasing Windows technologies and developing oddball and cool custom solutions on it. Maybe there's hope for me yet.

What do you think of mainstream Linux? Do you think it's replacing Windows as a mainstream OS or do you think they can survive, side-by-side in harmony? Talk back and let me know.

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